How would you describe your beliefs and identity in relation to religion?
I’d either use the phrase Humanist or Atheist, I don’t tend to distinguish between them, it depends on the context. I don’t see a massive distinction between them.
Would you feel represented by the British Humanist Association?
Certainly to an extent. I’m not a member, but I have certainly been to some of their events and engaged with their activities.
What made you adopt/retain this position?
I grew up in a Church of England household and went to a Church of England school. I was Christened, I chose to be baptised as a teenager. As an older teenager I became involved in a more Evangelical church for a while. I went to university and studied theology, and whilst there started to study anthropology as well. And came to the view that God is made in the image of man as much as anything else. Partly it was just growing up and having spent some time exploring religious texts, I kind of drifted away from it. The church I attended was an off shoot of an American church trying to establish itself in the UK. As well as my studies, it was getting involved in politics, particularly radical politics, which made me challenge a whole load of ideas about authority, including religious authority. That was what made me settle in a kind of humanist space. I still have a lot of respect for people with faith. I work for a lot in the peace movement with people whose faith drives them to do a lot of interesting and inspiring things. And in my current job I work with people of all faiths. And there are some really interesting and inspiring things, it’s not something for me, but it’s interesting how people react to that.
Would you say that GB is an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation and belief?
Broadly yes. There are some areas of extreme inequality, I would say that religion is not so much one as other social and economic areas. I have a slight theoretical problem with a constitutionally established church, but not to the extent that it is something I spend a lot of my time worrying about. But one of the reasons that I worked for Woodcraft folk rather than another youth organisation is that it is secular and works with people of all faiths and doesn’t have a strong link with the established church like Scouts or Boys Brigade. I also think that the blasphemy laws which come from the established church mean that there is a degree of inequality for other religions. But although we do have an established church, it’s not like America where religious views are preeminent in the political debate, and taken into consideration with almost any decision that is made.
How easy it for you to live in accordance with your beliefs? Are there challenges, and if so are they social, political or legal?
I don’t find any problems day to day. I’m conscious that where I live in North London is probably not representative of the UK. When the census comes out the proportion of people who are not religious is probably much higher than where my parents live in Devon, it’s not homogenous there but it less diverse. I probably wouldn’t be part of the mainstream there. My partner and I have chosen not to get married, but if we did we could have a civil marriage and a humanist ceremony. And in terms of choices of schools for our children, there are church schools but there are non-church schools as well. So there is nothing impinging on my ability to live out my beliefs.
Are there any ways in which humanists have a practical influence on human rights?
Yes, I think so, people like the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are very active in issues around school prayer and I think there are probably quite a lot of people drawn to that area of campaigning who happen to be humanist. A lot of the other things which humanist organisations do is probably quite niche, because we’re in a fairly good situation the battles which are left to fight are probably quite minor ones. It isn’t as though children are being forcibly indoctrinated or anything like that, so it is on the fringes of things. I can’t remember whether there still a legal requirement for schools to have an act of worship, there certainly was when I was at school. That kind of thing is annoying but in terms of practical impact it’s not the same as saying that you wouldn’t have comparative religion being taught. Whilst there are points to still be made, I would say that probably the really important areas are more important that the niche areas of ensuring that humanists have the right to practice their beliefs. I think that societal attitudes towards islamophobia probably are more of an important issue at the moment, more so than stopping worship in schools, and I think that a lot of humanists would recognise that and their right to enjoy the same freedoms that we do. That is more important than worship in schools, as it effects more people and is a more serious category of infringement of rights.
Do you think that public bodies respect human rights in general terms?
In general terms yes, there is a tendency with the current government to have less respect for Human Rights than is proper, but in terms of the institutions and infrastructure Human Rights are embedded. I am concerned by some of the attempts to repeal the Human Rights Act, it worries me that people in power and authority are even engaging in that conversation. But I hope that the principles are well enough embedded and supported for that not to happen.
And do you think that children as a category of citizen have their rights adequately upheld?
I think the short answer is probably not. There are some very specific things, it is almost indefensible that the extension of the franchise to 16 year olds hasn’t already happened. Beyond specific things like that, I think that it is more of a societal than a legal question. One thing that has always been important to Woodcraft Folk since it was founded in 1925, is the idea that it doesn’t matter whether you are an adult or a child, your views should be taken into account and your ability to participate should be facilitated and enabled, and that’s not the case in society as a whole. It sticks in my memory talking to one of our young members, who contrasted the way in which they interacted with adults at Woodcraft Folk, with the way in which they were treated by teachers at school. They were treated as equals at Woodcraft Folk. At school they felt that adults were on a different level to them and there wasn’t that sense of equality. I would say that at whatever stage of childhood, you have the ability to take responsibility for some aspects of your life, and it is the adults’ role to support that, rather than instruct them and tell them. And that is not the general societal norm, and Woodcraft Folk is partly about challenging that. Both by giving children the confidence to do this, and also showing adults that children and young people can make a positive contribution to society, and that they don’t need to take a command and control approach.
Do public authorities get the balance between protection and freedom right when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens?
I think it is broadly right. I don’t have direct experience of encounters with Social Services, I might have a different view if I did. But I think there is a good safety net in place so that where it is needed support can be offered where it is needed, generally that is applied appropriately. There are occasions where intervention is taken too far, for example cases of undercover police engaging in relationships with activists. I have got friends in the peace movement who have experienced that, that is an example of public authorities going beyond their remit and seriously compromising the human rights of the individuals involved. But I think that’s a very specific example. I think there is a similar thing with the Prevent legislation, expecting people like yourself to be taking on a policing role in society, which is not very good or helpful. But I would think those examples are unusual rather than systemic. I would not say that public authorities as a whole intervene too much.
When do you think that public authorities should intervene to limit the expression of beliefs?
There’s a principle – it’s not really humanist, it underpins a lot of religious traditions as well, of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There’s a line where a belief, political or religious, causes people to oppress others, stopping them from expressing their belief or making them uncomfortable in doing so. There is a place for the state to step in and create space for everyone to express their own beliefs. I don’t want a police state, but I don’t want people like the Far Right or religious extremists stopping other citizens acting outside of their belief system. There is a role for the state to step in, but it is a really difficult one to do, I don’t envy those who have to make the choice of when is the right time. Finding a societal balance between terrorism and legitimate protest is always going to be a contested space that is why we have a government.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society makes it easier to live in accordance with your convictions? Is there is any system of government which you would prefer?
There are definitely forms of democracy which I would prefer to the limited ones we have at the moment. I’ve spent quite a lot of my life engaging with political philosophy, I have a strong attraction to anarchism, and I think that it would be very difficult to implement an anarchist society on a national level. It links to the co-operative principles of Woodcraft Folk, with people taking more direct responsibility for both their own situation and that of their community, we could have a more participative and engaged democracy than we have. But any kind of democracy is better than a dictatorship.
Do you feel that you have a duty to vote?
Yes, it comes from being a human being.
Should Parliament have the final say in making law, or would you like to see judges empowered to strike down legislation?
I think that just changing the relationship between Supreme Court and Parliament without other changes would not help much.
Is a majoritarian understanding of democracy problematic for minorities? Are there some groups which face barriers to participation?
It’s definitely more difficult for some people to participate, and we have a system which facilitates majoritarian control by a minority because of a particularly unrepresentative voting system which we choose to have. And I think that the will of the majority is in itself problematic, and that democracy should be about enabling all voices to be heard. Sometimes compromises have to be reached, but the way to do that is through hearing the voices of all, rather than adopting a winner takes all system as we have here.
How do you feel about the unelected nature of the House of Lords?
I am in favour of an entirely elected system, although there is an interesting argument for a role of some unelected positions within the parliamentary system, so I wouldn’t rule that out if the case was made. But I don’t think that a system based on political appointments and being a bishop in the Church of England gives it legitimacy.
What is your view of the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
It’s like I was saying, I’m not opposed to the idea of some unelected lords, and I have a problem with an established Church. I wouldn’t have a problem with the government saying that there was a role for faith groups to appoint representatives to either a consultative or decision-making chamber. I don’t have a problem with a role for faith in government, I have a problem with only having a role for one faith. The Church of England bishops have a built in vote which people of other faiths and no faith are denied.
The bishops argue that they represent all persons of faith and the voiceless of society, what is your view of that?
I’m sure that some individual bishops can take that view and be much broader in their representation, but the mandate they have to be there is that of being a bishop in the Church of England. The structural creation is problematic, it relies on the good will and conscience of an individual, rather than building fairness and representation into the system.
Do you think that public authorities try to respect the will of Parliament, expressed through legislation?
There are certainly examples of the national and regional bodies ignoring legislation from Europe, the example which immediately springs to mind is air pollution. There are agreements which we signed up to which are routinely ignored. Similarly there are international agreements, like the commitment to get rid of nuclear weapons which the government signed up to 50 years ago and had taken no action on, in fact it has gone the other way. In terms of local government ignoring legislation, there are fewer obvious examples that spring to mind, there are examples where councils have stood up, if you go back 20 years there are examples of councils refusing to evict people non-payment of poll-tax because they felt that it was an unjust law. I suspect we might find something similar about the new rules around changes to council house tenures. I know there was a lot of conversation about councils setting illegal budgets outside of the government’s rules, in order to avoid cuts to services. I don’t know if that happened. My sense is that would only happen where the local authority feels that it has a strong mandate from its electorate to do that. Having said which, local government has the same problem as national government, in that it has a very undemocratic voting system. I live in a borough where less than 50% of people will vote for the Labour Party and they have 47 or 48 seats on the Council. There are lots of people who support the Greens, Conservatives and Lib Dems, and yet only the Greens have a councillor. That makes it very difficult for that authority to speak with credibility about the will of the people because it is unrepresentative. My sense more generally with Local Authorities is that there is a reluctance to challenge government and it only happens in extreme circumstances.
How do you feel about the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland?
I think that’s true at a UK level, there are decisions when applied in a blanket format from fishing villages in Cornwall, to industrial cities in the Midlands, a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. Decisions should be devolved to the lowest possible level, there are some things which it makes sense to decide at a parish council or Local Authority level and others which it makes sense to be developed at a regional, national or European level. I think that a better distribution of authority throughout those levels would be helpful.
How should people with power be held accountable?
People have power because other people give it to them or allow them to have it. There is an excellent Tony Benn quote where he talks about the 5 or 6 questions which you should ask people with power, who gave you the power and how do they remove you? I don’t know whether Tony Benn was a humanist or not, but he was a great orator and put it much better than that! Whereas, when I was involved in Evangelical churches, one of the tenets there was these people who are your leaders are in that position because God has said that they are, and to challenge them is to disrespect your God. At the time I was passionate about that and thought it was right, now I think how did I ever believe that? It’s not something that sits well with me, how can you have unchallengeable power? I think that in a Liberal democracy it is important that you have the ability to question power and challenge authority and that you understand where that authority comes from.
Do you think that humanists are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
I definitely think that humanists have a contribution to make, I think there probably are a reasonable number of them in public life, and whether it is directly proportional I’ve no idea. I don’t know whether I think there would be areas where it would be a challenge. I don’t know enough about the appointment of magistrates and judges, and whether being a humanist would be an issue. I certainly don’t think that it would be a problem for parliament or Local Authorities – it’s more of a problem to be a Republican. You don’t have to swear loyalty to God but you do to the Queen. I don’t think that there is any systematic oppression of humanists.
Do you think that there is enough distance between politicians and judges?
I don’t think that our judiciary is party politicised in the way that it is in the States. I think there are certain categories of our society where there probably is too much of an overlap. There are a disproportionate number of our politicians and judiciary who are privately educated and come from wealthy backgrounds. It is probably getting better, but there is an element of shared cultural experience, I suspect that this is changing. There was once a lot of ‘small c’ conservatism in both groups. A lot of work has been done to make the judiciary more represented, but it takes a long time for things to filter through, it’s a long track from being one of your students to a Supreme Court judge. There are probably a lot shared values between the senior judiciary and the government.
How do humanists seek to challenge decisions which they perceive to be problematic?
I don’t think that there is a way that humanists do it that is different, as citizens there are lot of ways we engage with the passing of bad laws, or inappropriate use of authority. But I see that as a duty of all citizens, rather than an aspect of humanism. If I was a Christian or Muslim I don’t think that the way I would challenge government authority would be any different. I don’t think that the voice of faith organisations is any louder than other groups like Greenpeace or Amnesty International. Similarly, I don’t see the British Humanist Association as different from Friends of the Earth in terms of its ability to lobby.
Do you think that public bodies have a good understanding of the needs of humanists, are these catered for?
I’m not sure that humanists have needs, the only one that springs to mind, is a negative, an absence of overtly religious stuff. It’s not about going to hospital and having a room where you can go and pray. It wouldn’t bother me, but my partner would find a hospital with crosses on the wall an uncomfortable place to be. That wouldn’t be resolved by saying that there was a quiet humanist room which you could go and sit in. Whereas a Christian in a secular hospital would be able to go off to a chapel. So it’s not a problem to have religiously run hospitals, provided that there is sufficient alternative provision for people who wouldn’t want to go there. Thinking about courts, the presumption that people will swear on the Bible or a religious book of some kind, and leaves the non-religious declaration as an alternative, might be a stigmatising thing. But I don’t think that there is a massive systemic discrimination against humanists.
Is it important for you to always act within the law?
I think the rule of law is important, but it is only as valid as its mandate, if you have bad laws it is incumbent upon citizens to challenge them, sometimes by breaking them. I have been arrested on non-violent protests because I believed that the British government continued deployment of nuclear weapons is in breach of international law, so breaking minor laws to disrupt this is entirely defensible. Fortunately we have not had this here, but countries which have passed explicitly racist laws, there is entirely appropriate to break those laws to change them.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices effecting third parties, especially the weak and vulnerable?
Yes, I would say so.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally, or do some groups receive either preferential or prejudicial treatment?
There’s a demonstrable racism within our criminal justice system, things like stop and search laws, the disproportionate populations within the prison system. There are certainly aspects where……I live close to Holloway, there are a lot of women imprisoned for crimes where imprisonment is not appropriate. There are problems with the use of prison systems for minor crimes that is more likely to effect ethnic minorities, possibly some religions and people at the poorer end of society.
How do you feel about the general increase in the powers of the police over the last 15 years or so?
I think broadly, the same laws should apply to the police as everyone else. There are instances where the state has to act in the interests of everyone, but it’s really important where exceptions are made that it is transparent and the mandate is clear. There is an issue with ‘phone tapping and monitoring of communications. It is appropriate that where there is evidence that the police should be able to have access to these things to prevent terrorism or serious crime, but that should be done with judicial scrutiny and on a case by case basis, rather than under the blanket powers which are being given at the moment. I mentioned earlier, things like the Prevent legislation. Also as an employer I now have obligations to police part of the immigration system, which I am not qualified to do, and that puts me in a position where I have to behave towards people in a way that I wouldn’t choose to do, or risk breaking the law. I think that kind of privatisation of the criminal justice system, giving powers to employers, teachers and landlords is incredibly problematic.
Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive and would like to see changed?
Nothing that directly affects me. If I had school age children I would probably concerned about whether there was genuinely secular education available to them. But there is nothing in my daily life.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
Something which was in my mind, is the closest I have come in recent years to restrictions on freedom of speech have been the in relation to charity law, and restrictions on charities campaigning. As you know, Woodcraft Folk is an organisation run by and with young people and one of our important principles is supporting young people to have their voices heard. So when the coalition government started to make changes to education funding, we were conscious that the young people with whom we worked didn’t have a vote or an opportunity to have a voice. We looked hard at the law around charities campaigning, and it was clear that we as a charity couldn’t take a view on whether this policy was good or bad for young people, as that would be party political. But we decided to do everything in power to help to give young people, particularly under-16s a voice. That led to some quite negative publicity about our “encouraging 13 year olds to riot outside parliament”, which wasn’t true of course. I had a clear instruction from our trustees that it wasn’t our role to tell children and young people what their views should be, but to support them in expressing their views. I think that the recent changes to charity law would make it much harder for us to do that. Also the introduction of gagging clauses in government grants. If we were a religious charity it would be a restriction on freedom of religion and, as it is, it a restriction on democracy.
Jon Nott is General Secretary to the Woodcraft Folk, the Cooperative Children and Young People’s Movement. Prior to his current role he served as Chief Executive of the Green Party in the run up to the election of the first Green MP at the 2010 General Election. After studying theology and anthropology at Durham University in the early 1990s, he spent 5 years as part of a Radical Booksellers Worker-Cooperative in Durham and Newcastle, before moving to London. There he worked in membership and fundraising for several peace campaigns and undertook a wide range of voluntary roles in community and campaigning organisations.